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Finding Meaning in “The Tree of Life”

June 20, 2011

By John C.

Having opened in limited release on June 10th and expanding to the beautiful TIFF Bell Lightbox this past Friday, The Tree of Life is acclaimed director Terrence Malick’s fifth film in nearly forty years.  In many ways, it is his most visionary.  Watching it is a visually breathtaking and spiritual experience, that manages to evoke feelings in an audience that often times would be lost in translation.  Here is a film that moves, inspires and haunts us, connecting everyone through the common unity of existence.

The film opens with a quote from the Book of Job (specifically chapter 38: verses 4 & 7), when God asks, “Where were you when I founded the Earth… while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”  In many ways, this simple and haunting question is the axle on which The Tree of Life is based.

Early on, we are told in a whispered voiceover by the motherly Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) that there are two ways through life – the way of nature, and that of grace.  Nature will use fierce will to get ahead in the world, where as those who choose grace will allow themselves to live freely, accepting the things they could never change.  Our main character, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn as an adult, Hunter McCracken as a child) is at war within himself over these ideas.  In the present, he works at a highrise office building in the middle of a bustling city, but as a child grew up amongst white picket fences and sprawling gardens in the seemingly perfect small town of Waco, Texas.

His childhood, and that of his two younger brothers, makes up the majority of the film.  Their house is ruled with an iron fist by Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), and we witness Jack’s burgeoning loss of innocence as he struggles the forces, desperately attempting to forge his own way in the world.  The O’Briens are not characters in the classic sense of the word, more seeming like a metaphor for every life that undeniably exists at a certain point in time.  The father firmly represents the way of nature, the mother that of grace.  This family will only be here for a few meager years when measured against that of all existence, but for that short time will be equally important as everyone else.

Their story is shown in a series of brief flashbacks, which often contain little dialogue.  Scenes are shown as memories, sometimes hazy, but vividly remembered for the impact they had.  With elements that mirror what we know of Malick’s own childhood, perhaps these are his own memories that have been painstakingly recreated.  This allows the whole film to feel very circular, both in visual metaphor and narrative structure.  It symbolises the similarities between beginning and end, ultimately blurring the line between them in a profoundly reassuring way.  Some have viewed the film with a finality, but for me the more evident theme is that of rebirth and finding new beginnings.

Brad Pitt turns in one of his best performances as the father, and Jessica Chastain is a revelation playing the radiant mother.  Sean Penn is excellent in a few brief scenes, allowing plenty of time for the young Hunter McCracken to shine as his characters’ youthful counterpart.  McCracken displays a range of emotions, delivering a fully nuanced performance that is rarely seen from a child actor.  The musical score by Alexandre Desplat is also excellent, beautifully accompanying the classical pieces that memorably play over several crucial scenes.

As I let the power of the visuals wash over me, watching The Tree of Life was ultimately a film experience quite unlike any I’ve ever had.  Parts of it could draw comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s great 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Walt Disney masterpiece Fantasia or even the documentary Koyaanisqatsi.  Yet Malick’s vision still manages to feel like something wholly original unto itself because he has put so much human emotion into every image.

Like all of Terrence Malick’s films, the cinematography here is breathtaking.  His view of even the most simple and mundane things displays a beauty and grace that is rarely seen on such a large scale.  It’s as if the director views every image, time and place as equally important, openly giving the audience insight into his own graceful view of the world.  So much of Malick’s own vision is on display here, yet the beautiful images often feel like an open canvas onto which the audience is able to project their own feelings, emotions and memories.

Many will see this only for the dramatic portions of the story, but what Malick gives us is a poetic view of existence.  There is a spiritual awareness here as it shows us the majesty and mystery of our universe, allowing the audience to watch as events taking place on a large scale will inevitably unite all of us living out our singular lives.  Throughout one breathtaking sequence, the audience is shown the creation of life on Earth.  On a macro level, we watch as planets move through galaxies, and on a micro level witness the division of cells to create new life.  Both symbolize the constant evolution of all living things, visually showing us how everything new is created from a part of something preexisting.

The film’s central metaphor of a tree is one of the most simple and beautiful that it has to offer.  A tree will live for many years, existing to witness several generations of family life, with its branches and roots symbolizing the connections we all share to each other.  Just as the universe was created at the dawn of existence and continues to move forward in ways both singular and universal, when the tree falls, the seed it leaves behind will spring forth into new life.  The Tree of Life provokes deep thought in viewers with this seemingly simple message, reminding us that there have and will continue to be events both big and small to connect us through things beyond our control.

These universal and singular elements at play in both the metaphorical and loosely narrative portions of the film will transcend barriers and become evident in the mixed emotions of audiences.  When viewed at a theatre, The Tree of Life will inevitably become a shared experience, with the opportunity to talk about it afterwards.  Yet it must always remain a singular experience as those who see the film are guaranteed to react in ways that are shaped by their own beliefs and ideas on where we place in the grand scheme of existence.  I do not expect mainstream audiences to fully understand the film and they might even grow impatient with its relaxed pace, but after a single viewing it has already started to mean a great deal to me personally.

The Tree of Life is a singular achievement, a spiritual and visual symphony of breathtaking images that often feel like memories.  It is a film that begins and ends within itself, as Malick gives the audience a glimpse into existence through the constraints of a poetic 138-minute running time.  Yet it is a film that lasts much longer than that, as it manages to deeply move and even humble us, merely by showing human life as set against the backdrop of created and continuing existence.

130 Comments leave one →
  1. July 3, 2011 12:27 am

    you are right on point helped me out w youre insight i loved it


  2. Sean garner permalink
    July 23, 2011 6:57 am

    That was a very good analysis of this piece of art by Terrence Malick. You have managed to write in language thoughts I had about the film that I couldn’t express vocally myself! After watching it I felt a great connectivity to nature and the universe. I feel as humans we’ve tried to separate our selves from the rest of the world and believe everything is in our control, when clearly it is not. We are apart of this universe and are equally as important or unimportant as everything else. It also managed to bring back memories and emotions I had as a child that I had long forgot about. It has allowed me deal with them better, as an older head and allowed me to understand why certain things happened as they did.
    ” Lord, Why? Where were you? Did you know what happened? Do you care?”


    • July 23, 2011 12:10 pm

      Nicely written. One of the greatest compliments that can be given to a writer is letting them know that their work has allowed the reader to reach a level of deeper appreciation or understanding. I’m glad that you also felt a deeply personal connection to The Tree of Life. I truly believe that this sense of connectivity and spiritual awareness which you mentioned is one of the most beautiful and important things about Terrence Malick’s film.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts,

      -John C.


  3. July 27, 2011 12:40 pm

    Emotionally profound and spiritual. A masterpiece that touched me deeply.


  4. September 21, 2011 8:00 am

    With this film, Terrence Malick created a new way of thinking as far as the making of movies is concerned. In a time when directors’ minds have ran short of new and fresh ideas and almost every new movie is a bad copy of an older one, he managed to create something copletely different. He treated a simple subject, existence and the battle between grace and human nature, which is relative to any human being, with such a perspective and complexity that i am sure that every single one of the spectators has formed a unique explanation for the film. Thus, he gave the audience the chance to participate in this movie, simply by being triggered and provocked to think about it afterwards.


  5. Michele Anderson permalink
    October 2, 2011 2:42 am

    it was visually beautiful in parts but mentally discombobulating and disturbing in too many others ….. we all left saying “what was that all about …??? …Huh” …… it was too disjointed and too jerkily cutf rom one sequence to the next and it needed subtitles to be able to understand what all the voices were saying …it was like listening to a conversation through a wall … and as for Sean Penn … he looked morose and puzzled and pensive the ENTIRE time and none of us could understand which character he’d been as a child …. also – what was with the boy with the burnt head … it was never explained – but shown often enough to have been of some significance surely ??
    It had serious possibilties but seemed to loose it’s way with too much off everything being thrown into the washer … i agree something completely different was created but different doesn’t mean good


    • October 2, 2011 12:16 pm

      For me, the very thing that makes The Tree of Life special is the fact that everyone who sees it is going to react differently. Even those who admire it as much as I do are inevitably going to have different reactions to the film. Others, like yourself, didn’t relate to it the same way.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your personal opinion,

      -John C.


    • Mez permalink
      October 5, 2011 8:37 pm

      Michele Anderson : i totally agree with what you said, you said everything i had to say about this movie no need to repeat myself, i was disappointed with it as it had huge potential to be an outstanding movie, different doesn’t always work, and the freaky trip with the water and volcanoes and dinosaurs just went on for too long.


    • Dave Weiker Sr permalink
      December 31, 2011 3:02 am

      It is a shame thta those such as yourself do not have the capacity to absorb intellectually the deep meaning of such a film. In laymans terms, it is over your head. Many today do not have the ability to relax and use their minds to expand understanding and challenge their thoughts and beliefs on lifes mysterys and be challenged by questions of the philosophical nature on the basic existence of life. To many, the mind has become lazy and lacks the desire to expand. So to not understand gives empty justification to simply label the film as a bad product. This mitigates the lost feelings of the lazy mind.


      • January 26, 2012 11:00 am

        Dave, it is such a shame that people who feel they are of superior intellect, would choose to sneer at someone who didn’t understand the film instead of helping this person understand it. Insulting her is not going to help.
        I myself loved the film. leaving this movie, I understood the points that were discussed in this article. It was a beautiful visual work of art and I appreciate it but there were a few things that I did not understand. As one person said, some of the whispering, was hard to hear and I left feeling as if I missed something.
        Michelle brought up a few questions that maybe you could have answered instead of being such a snob.
        Michele, Penn’s character was the only child with dark hair, that is how I knew who he was as a child. What I did not understand was the part about his brother dying. It is one of the first things that happen in the movie if not the first and then it wasn’t really mentioned again. You hear Penn say that his brother died when he was 19. I don’t know if this was an older brother and there were 4 originally, or if the movie went back from that moment to the earlier years. I don’t know which brother it was who died. The mother seemed pretty happy in most of the film so I am leaning towards the latter. I can’t see her being that happy after losing a child.

        Other than that, I pretty much got the broad strokes of the film and enjoyed it.


      • February 26, 2012 1:02 am

        Well, la de da, Dave, you are pretty full of yourself aren’t you. Your comment screams insecurity. The film was beautiful visually. For me that was all it had going for it. Loved the mother. Whimsical, lovely, grace personified. Brought me back to growing up in the 50’s. I also wondered about the brother who died. Was it the oldest one? Father’s in those days were pretty much like that. Head of the house and swaggering home. Although he did show his boys affection. Anyway, Oscar? Seriously?


  6. Michele Anderson permalink
    October 2, 2011 12:51 pm

    thanks for your view … don’t get me wrong – i like thought provoking movies & i usually love discussing a movie after it ends to hear different interpretations and angles but i promise that the entire audience after this one were absolutely puzzled …. we all spent about half an hour before we went our seperate ways , in the foyer, trying to get to grips with it … i agree that some of the sequences were amazing footage …. but the actual story part was too disjointed and not smoothly cut …. but please … my biggest question – to someone who understood more that i did is : what was the significance of the back of the boy’s head showing signs of being burnt ????


    • October 2, 2011 5:30 pm

      You’re very welcome. I agree, the film does allow for some very interesting discussions afterwards. The best answer I can give you at the moment for the significance of the back of the boy’s head being burnt is that portions of the film were based on elements of Terrence Malick’s own childhood, and this could be something that he remembers happening to his brother.

      Other than that, many of the events in the flashbacks of the film were meant to symbolize the moments in childhood when we start to lose our innocence and have to make decisions about which path to follow in life. The way of nature, or that of grace.

      Hope this helps,

      -John C.


    • SoSo Cinema permalink
      December 1, 2011 12:21 pm

      My interpretation of the burnt boy was one of several examples of the young O’Brien’s lost of innocence.

      He see the burnt boy who is a similar age, realizing he is disfigured and different. It’s all part of the whispered questions “God where were you? Why did you let this happen? etc.” It’s young O’Brien realizing the world can be cruel and harsh. He eventually befriends the burnt boy (playing with tin cans) as an act of sorrow, pity, and understanding.

      In other words, it represents another experience of life’s random tragedy.


    • Susan Whiteman permalink
      January 8, 2012 8:02 pm

      Regarding the question of the boy being “burnt,” harken back to the DDT exposure scene. The characters were shown dancing in the chemical cloud, embracing it if you will, as it was at that period of time. Right after you see the boy’s missing hair, the next scene is of Mr. O’Brien in his garden, pulling off bug-eaten leaves of whatever leafy vegetable that was. Despite the DDT, there are still holes in his produce (the futility of man against nature–of man against his own nature?) and the boy is presumably affected in some way (cancer, a chemical burn?) by the DDT.


      • Rebekah Lehman permalink
        July 8, 2012 3:12 pm

        DDT was not sprayed at that time to combat insects, but to disinfect against disease. Maybe it was a comment on how really silly and naive we are as a species. And while we believe we are more evolved, our intellect may be the way we hinder our own progress.


    • Karlowar permalink
      May 16, 2012 8:38 am

      Everything in the film appears as memories do in our own heads – the burnt boy, the clown at the fair, the boy who drowned, the police taking away the criminals, sitting in the grass on a summer evening…think about your own childhood – everything comes back to you as a flood of memory in the form of images, impressions. The burnt boy represented just one of the many kids you might have known, but one who made an impression and taught you something about the world and about yourself…perhaps an early realization that the world can be unfairly violent to innocent people. I remember these moments and they can be difficult – certainly any memory/image that still sticks in my head today is associated with strong emotion, usually either intense joy or intense fear and sadness. I remember other kids’ impressionable faces, but not always their names. The burnt boy also looked kind of like Jack’s youngest brother – the boy probably made Jack contemplate the things that can happen to us or our loved ones that are beyond our control.

      As for the brother who died – it is most likely the middle brother. After the news of his death comes, the image of the classical guitar sitting alone on the stand identifies him. I believe this happened later on, even though their old house is shown. This doesn’t bother me, as all the images are presumably out of Sean Penn’s adult memory – there are several shots of the house that make it look like an entirely different place at times, especially the beautiful shot of the house sitting alone in a meadow. If you think about it, this is how we remember places from our past – sometimes larger than life, sometimes small, with certain details that get jumbled and filled in with other memories. I thought that was important in the film. The attic obviously represented something strong in his adult memory – fear, anxiety, isolation – certainly the events that took place there probably never happened, but are projections of other memories or dreams.


    • Sl700 permalink
      July 1, 2012 10:05 am

      human suffering. thats the point. a person who is innocent suffers. people question God at such tmes. right after this character first appears the narrative says something along the lines of “God why are so cruel? if you are so cruel how can I believe in you?”


  7. October 12, 2011 8:56 am

    I hated this film. Pretentious, condescending, self indulgent crap is the way I would describe it.


    • doug permalink
      July 8, 2012 2:41 am

      I can see the hate in your face James Louis. Why must all things beyond your comprehension be dismissed as condescending crap?


  8. mike permalink
    October 16, 2011 1:08 am

    LOL ^


  9. wendie cherubini permalink
    October 21, 2011 6:27 pm

    Reading has helped me to understand this film. I think the burnt boy’s head was from the firecrackers? Wish it explained more, way too abstract


  10. Pete Busher permalink
    October 23, 2011 11:06 am

    5 of us with different life views (art, music, IT, medical) all said the same thing when it finished: What the hell was that about? Some of the visuals were amazing. Some of the music as inspiring. I can’t judge the acting because I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to do/be/say. Left with little information or content, it’s hard not to see Brad Pitt and Sean Penn as … well … Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.

    What I’m left with is the opportunity to play a huge joke on my friends: “Hey, you have GOT to go rent this movie. Watch it to the end, because it’s the ending that makes it!” I’m waiting for the death theats and rotten vegetables to arrive any day now.


    • Vance permalink
      January 7, 2012 2:10 pm

      BRAVO-My wife told me how she read that audiences sat in the theater in awe at the end of this moive. I think they sat in utter confusion. I watched the movie in its entirety hoping the end would tie it together. At the end I threatened my wife’s life and had the urge to hit her with a rotten tomato.
      I recently watched part of the movie “Rubber” and turned it off early thinking this must be the worst movie ever made. Boy was I wrong. Google Rubber if you have never heard of it. Tree of Life was the most confusing, mind numbing, seizure inducing waste of time I have ever experienced.
      The creators of Rubber realized they were making a crappy movie which at least contributed some humor to the process. It is sad that Malick thought he was creating a great artistic cinematic masterpiece. Then again I could be wrong; Malick could be the Stephen Hawking of the arts and the masses just cannot comprehend the grace of this movie. Either way this was a waste of time for a man of nature like me.


  11. Jeff Farris permalink
    October 26, 2011 3:54 am

    From beginning to end, this film relayed conventional, even religious, ideals to the viewer, albeit non-offensively, and also beautifully crafted and completely mesmerizing. To quote scripture from The Book of Job as an introduction, I suspect, is by no means a gaffe on the part of the director.

    For the sake of reference, The Book of Job is a mysterious passage in the old testament that describes a man who loses everything by way of calamity, only to be scrutinized as a sinner by his peers because God does not target good people with such suffering, and finally for Job to confront God himself in order to defend, subjectively, his own honorable life – surely God had got it wrong. In other words, Job admonished God that there was a mistake. Job was innocent after all, at least in his own eyes. Job’s encounter with the divine, nonetheless, ends with a harsh scolding from God that Job was not present when the cosmos and the earth was created and, thus, who is Job to pass judgement on the doings of the creator. To be honest, the Book of Job is a difficult story to digest and begs the reader to consider that perhaps God is a arbitrary and heartless deity. The clear allegory here is that life is harsh and arbitrary.

    In the beginning of the film, upon hearing of her son’s death, Mrs. O’Brien is consoled by a woman who uses every cliche’ ever spoken in the English language, ad nauseam, except in the last phrase just as the camera fades out; “God send flies to wounds where he should heal.” A jarring moment, if one is paying attention, but it also invites the viewer to contemplate their own opinion as to why humans suffer. Is God benevolent and caring or is life hopelessly painful? How does one square the seemingly unjust heartache of existence?

    Indeed, to suggest that there are two paths in life, one of sheer will and the other by means of humility and grace, also reflects the same duality that conventional religion has handed off to our modern civilization. Those who choose grace are good, and those who are seduced by natural urges are to be considered sinful. I propose that the film is the director’s vehicle of reconciliation for both the light and darkness to merge and become unified. Even when the young protagonist is whispering to himself that he “doesn’t do what he wants to do, but does the thing that he hates” is a direct quote from Paul the Apostle wherein Paul explains that human beings are inclined to sin – naturally. The argument is that humans are incapable of maintaining a youthful innocence and that we are destined to fail. I believe that the director is communicating to the viewer that, in order to find peace of mind, one must embrace both sides of the human condition, not just one or the other. To be fully human is to waver between the two polarities of good and evil and we are given two fine examples of either wherein both are compelling and completely relatable.

    In the final scenes we are transported to an almost heavenly landscape where the ocean meets the sand and all the characters appear one by one. When the mother is confronted by her dead son, there is a moment in which she raises her arms, surrounded by the fates/angels, and with a clear reference to Abraham’s son, Issac, she “gives” her son freely to God and accepts his untimely destiny with death at a young age.

    As I alluded before, these offerings by the director seem to be designed to tap into the subconscious, or even the unconscious, for illumination and understanding. It seems as though he is appealing to traditions that may lie just beneath the surface of most of his viewers. The use of surf, underwater shots, and a drowning are all symbols of the unconscious with an understanding that none of us are simply interpreting the world with our rational faculties, but that we construct ideas by various means, including our seemingly unseen emotional intuition.


    • October 26, 2011 10:51 am

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Jeff. I agree that The Book of Job – just like The Tree of Life – challenges us with natural feelings about the reasons for human suffering. It is no small feat on the part of Terrence Malick that he was able to convey so many of these ideas through wordless montages and whispered dialogue.

      However, if audiences are looking for a more literal retelling and interpretation of The Book of Job, then I would suggest watching the Coen Brothers 2009 masterpiece A Serious Man.

      Again, I would like to say thank you for reading and taking the time to share your deep thoughts on the film,

      -John C.


      • Donna J. Sanders permalink
        February 28, 2012 8:13 pm

        Thank goodness that I went ahead and watched this movie after my daughter walked out of it..
        But,it is not a made for everyone movie but is for everyone~So very beautiful..wished I had seen it on the big screen..
        Brad Pitt gave an amazing portrayal…
        Thank you for your thoughts ,,they are right on!


    • Lynn Lupetti permalink
      February 26, 2012 7:57 pm

      Really nice insights!


    • TPR permalink
      July 17, 2012 11:09 pm

      Great comment; it helped make sense of this complex, beautiful movie


  12. Karen permalink
    October 27, 2011 12:47 am

    We just finished watching this moviie. What a mess it was! We were confused about which ‘son’ was dead and who Sean Penn was portraying. We finally figured it out after reading an Internet review. We found ourselves wondering why the ‘visuals’ were sooooooo long and what did they have to do with the story. We finally figured that out, too, after reading an Internet review. That is 2 hours +/- we’ll never get back.


    • Karlowar permalink
      May 16, 2012 8:52 am

      People waste hours of their life watching all sorts of garbage on TV and passing time at a job they don’t like. To suddenly want two of them back because you watched a movie you didn’t connect with is just silly. Several of my friends and relatives who hated this movie and said the same thing later admitted that they didn’t even watch past the creation/dinosaur scenes. A lot of good art requires investment and effort on the part of the audience – we are too conditioned now by commercial garbage and receive movies, music, etc in a lazy fashion – by sitting back and expecting to be entertained immediately. Then we change the channel the moment we feel any pangs of boredom.


  13. catherine permalink
    October 27, 2011 4:15 pm

    I just let this unique and visually beautiful movie wash over me and it seems to me that it simply examines what we all examine throughout our lives…the meaning of our lives and the meaning of the universe…all the little questions and big questions we humans ponder.


    • catherine fox permalink
      March 20, 2012 7:37 pm

      Thankyou Catherine my thoughts exactly on this film. I was so moved at how the inner life of the children in all their pain and joy shone thru.


  14. November 14, 2011 10:44 am

    I am surprised that even in this column I couldn’t find anyone other than Karen who was as confused as I was about which son died. It sure seemed to me at the time it happened that it had to be the oldest (therefore Jack).

    I do feel that the boy with the burned head was simply meant to be an example, like the man who was partially crippled and yet still walking, of things in life that are not beautiful on the outside but might be on the inside. As Jack matured he finally felt comfortable giving the boy a pat on the shoulder.

    I am glad to see that this movie has its fans, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending it to anyone I know. If in fact life has meaning, surely it isn’t this depressing.


    • November 14, 2011 12:16 pm

      There is only so much one can write about a film without spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it, hence why I didn’t going into specific details about the characters. Sorry for any confusion.

      I beg to differ on your last point, though. The Tree of Life is about finding beauty amidst the natural and man made world, even as things beyond our control are constantly changing. It’s a lot to digest all at once, but underneath is far from a depressing message.

      I must say that I find it very interesting reading all of these different opinions on the film, and in some ways it has increased my appreciation of Terrence Malick’s unique vision. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts,

      -John C.


    • P. Hat permalink
      January 29, 2012 11:45 pm

      I hope that I am not spoiling it for anyone who’s reading this and have not seen the movie. There were many montages after the scene when the parents received the letter of bad news to show us who was the son that died. The film panned to the dead boy’s room with a guitar. The dad was remorseful about the way he had treated his now dead son during a music lesson earlier. Through out the movie we saw that the second boy was the one who was playing the guitar. At the end of the movie, the beach scene, the second oldest boy was seen through a door frame alone as the mother was saying something like, god you can have him now. Anyway, there ample evidence for you to see who was the dead son. It was certainly was not spoon fed to us.

      If you look up wikipedia about Terrence Malick, you’ll see this movie is similar to his life. He had 2 brothers, where he was the oldest. The second brother was musically inclined and studied in Europe. He was also the one who committed suicide.


  15. November 17, 2011 1:53 pm

    The boy with the burnt head was shown after the ‘house on fire’ scene….maybe it was his house that burnt down.


  16. becki permalink
    November 18, 2011 5:18 pm

    this movie is a classic Hollywood film trying to be unconventional and enlighten its viewers on the ways of the world, create a deep self-reflection and find hopefully, inspire new ways of thinking–inspire us to be better people, or at least more self-aware.

    I guess you could say it does do all these things–but seriously! Does Hollywood think we only got through elementary school? The existential questions asked at the beginning of the universe sequence, and the sentences murmured throughout the film were meant to be ‘thought-provoking’ but it was already obvious!!

    The best scene in the movie is the dinosaurs–the part where it is illustrating ‘nature’ (the main theme– nature vs. grace) and it later parallels with Mr. O’Brien doing a similar thing to his son. If the whole film was about dinosaurs I would have been happier.

    If the film doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry. I understand completely where the film was trying to go, but its like reading Proust or trying to understand post-modern art; its elusive and attempting to challenge the audience to understand the art through understanding the artist.

    So touche, Malick. I appreciate your commitment to true modern art and artistry, but like most pretentious artists’ your art is only for yourself, and not for others. It is only to be admired, not understood. And its to show how much more enlightened you are, only to show that you that you’re pretentious. And again, true to post-modern art’s nature you leave the question you posed open to the audience to interpret its meaning… which I think eludes the artist, Malick, as well!

    Overall, its a film to be admired for its images not its content. Or, treat it like the Planet Earth series–have a toke and sit back for the ride.


    • November 27, 2011 2:56 am

      Thank you for posting your comment because these were my thoughts as well after watcthing this movie. The film did not make sense at first because I had no idea who the director was and exactly what the movie was about. After watching it, I defintely had some questions which lead me here but I felt the same way about the movie.


    • James Piser permalink
      January 29, 2012 2:15 am

      You’re obviously very young and trying to sound “learned”. Look back over your sentences; they’re a structural train wreck. The only thing you manage to convey is a complete lack of any meaningful life experience. Watch this movie again in 40 years when you’ve lived a while and I think you’ll appreciate it a lot more.


      • janet m permalink
        February 24, 2012 5:46 pm

        picking on her grammar doesn’t prove her wrong. and i don’t believe one has to be as old as you obviously are to understand the movie. i think she’s absolutely right. i found the movie to be a very self-indulgent piece of work, and that was before i even knew that it was loosely based on malick’s own life. the director essentially lifted the best visuals from national geographic and put them together as a very sloppy “origins of life” montage set to opera music. also, the whispering voice-over was laughably melodramatic. i was not confused about any of the aspects of it, except the plot. was there a plot? no, i guess it was just a “deep metaphor” for all of the things “we” (Terrence Malick) experience in life. i didn’t find it profound. i found it pretentious, long-winded and yet somehow un-finished, since there was no kind resolution of any kind in the end. however, i am glad that it finally ended. i am just sorry that i’ll never get those 2 hours back.


    • Karlowar permalink
      May 16, 2012 9:10 am

      When an artist attempts something ambitious and unconventional, why are they always immediately labeled as ‘pretentious?’ Do you really believe Malick only made this movie to feel superior to you in some way…if anything, a movie that spoon feeds you every detail is insulting because it assumes you aren’t able to understand it on your own. To make a piece of art that remains open and inviting to an audience and allows them to freely draw their own conclusions is exactly the opposite – i’m tired of these knee-jerk assumptions about perceived intellectual snobbery…they are just lazy and paranoid. It’s not the artist’s fault when a mind is closed off.


  17. November 24, 2011 2:17 pm

    I am not a highly educated or sophisticated person, yet, I was taken on a beautiful flight through a families life that was so strongly filled with emotions and memories, that I will be gently touched by it forever. It swirled my memories within it and let them flow through the creation sequences and intertwine with each character as they walked through their lives. There were such deep, true, and solitary thoughts that portrayed the struggles of each character…all so familiar…all seen or felt through my life…and then the movie, gave me the spaces to have those old, personal, memories unfold while I watched the scenes of beauty and power float between the family scenes.
    I may not say this with a knowledgeable background, but the feelings that The Tree of Life gave me, were meaningful and awoke the very roots of my being.


    • November 24, 2011 2:42 pm

      Wonderfully written – I agree with everything you said. The Tree of Life obviously affects everyone in different ways, but sometimes those who over think what is on screen are not allowing themselves to be affected by it on a simple and emotional level.

      Thank you for reading and sharing your personal thoughts on the film,

      -John C.


  18. Anne Marie Coonradt permalink
    November 26, 2011 11:48 pm

    THE WEALTH OF TALENT with which all the symbolism is portrayed throughout this entire film is excellent.


  19. December 9, 2011 12:33 am

    After all the great reviews I was really looking forward to this film. Jame Louis echoes my reaction: a total mess & a waste of 2 hours of my lfe. Great acting from the kids, but not the “stars”. Oscar contender? Surely not.


  20. nogero permalink
    December 19, 2011 11:24 pm

    I loved the film. Finally something really different. If you want an entirely different view of it all, or those who had trouble understanding I suggest you see this documentary when available: which aired on PBS a week or two ago. I’ll bet some will feel different about the movie.


  21. Michelle permalink
    December 20, 2011 2:26 am

    I watched it yesterday on DVD. I must admit, even though I was confused initially, the score and the cinematography kept my finger off the ‘stop’ button. Then I watched ‘Exploring the Tree of life’ in the special features. I couldn’t wait to watch it again. I guarantee it’s sooo much better the second time (once you understand a little more).

    I think the burnt boy wasn’t actually supposed to ‘mean’ anything in particular. I think as a child when you see something like that, you’re confused, scared, sympathetic and curious…exactly how I felt seeing this burnt boy on screen.

    What I’m not sure about is the significance of young Jack taking his mothers slip or nightdress, whatever it was??? Why did he put it in the river?? Was that supposed to be a sexual thing?? I missed the point of that whole sequence.

    Bottom line: If you hated it, move on. If you loved it, buy it and enjoy. If you’re not sure, watch some interviews, read some reviews and watch the special features on the DVD, then give it another go. It’s worth the understanding…


    • December 21, 2011 10:57 am

      It’s nice to know that someone who was initially confused would find themselves having such admiration for the film in the long run. I would recommend everyone check out Exploring The Tree of Life, especially after what you wrote.

      As for the nightgown, I’m pretty sure he was stealing it from a neighbour’s house, and put it in the river out of guilt. Again, this sequence was meant to represent his burgeoning loss of innocence, so you could interpret some sexual undertones.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your experience with the film,

      -John C.


  22. Alyssaspytman permalink
    December 29, 2011 11:10 pm

    I love this article and I agree with you about the mainstream audience. This movie deserves to be watched it needs to be watched because unlike most movies it’s memorable and moves one deeply.


    • December 30, 2011 12:00 am

      Thank you so much for your kind words on my article! It’s always great to get such feedback and I agree that more people should give this deeply moving film a chance.

      -John C.


  23. Greg J. permalink
    January 2, 2012 11:01 am

    It has been interesting reading the posts that are “nature” based and those that come through “grace”. I don’t think this movie is for everybody but I found it to be one of the most emotional and deeply felt movie I have ever seen. It was depressing and inspiring at the same time and shows the struggle that humans have for finding meaning and balance in their lives to find peace. Thanks John C. for capturing and communicating the meaning of this film through words.


    • January 2, 2012 11:34 am

      You’re welcome, Greg! Thanks for reading. I agree with you that the way Terrence Malick so beautifully handles the mixed emotions of the story is one of the things that makes The Tree of Life such a deeply moving experience for the viewer.

      -John C.


  24. Rob A. permalink
    January 11, 2012 11:21 pm

    I just saw this film January 2012 after seeing that both Ebert at the Movies reviewers voted it in their top five films for 2011. One hour after seeing the film and reading the comments listed here, I still feel emotional and moved. The film grabbed me with a firm yet warm grip from beginning to end as I grapp;ed with my need to understand every scene, reference, image and line and my desire to simply allow my emotions and thoughts to flow freely without judgement or the anxiety that comes when flooded with powerful emotions and unclear meaning. For me, this movie going experience is itself a metaphor for living and the struggle to grasp and control purpose and meaning and accomplishment vs. allowing oneseself to simply be. When I accepted that I wouldnt understand every scene, I found my self enjoying the film so much more.


  25. January 13, 2012 10:13 pm

    “Pain is inevitable. Misery is a choice.” -Unknown

    Beautiful, rich, multi-leveled, reflection of humanity, pain, God, and meaning.


  26. January 28, 2012 5:13 pm

    Enojoyed all the comments. I really liked this movie. In a nutshell, I thought the message of this movie is we are all connected, always have been and always will be–to the universe through the natural order of things and constant evolution of nature and to each other through the common human experience (birth, death, love, loss,joy, tragedy, sympathy, innocence and loss of it, struggling to understand our own path, etc.) from the beginning to the the end of time. It illustrated to me how unique and different we think we all are yet how much the same we are in the context of “my life”.


  27. Matt Clark permalink
    January 29, 2012 12:36 am

    Just finished watching the Blu-ray, as I’m trying to see all of the Best Picture Nominees for Oscars this year. This one definitely stands out as one of the more bizarre movies I’ve watched in some time, but based on the vast array of comments here and the author’s own interpretations, it’s clear this movie evokes thought. Whether it’s a WTF? or a deeper analysis is another question.

    I watched the movie with subtitles so that showed all of the dialogue and then “adult jack/young jack” as who was saying what. Even with that going on I couldn’t tell who was who, who died, how they died, and whether Sean Penn was God or an angel. I looked it up after the fact and it made a bit more sense. The author here makes some great points and connects the dots, so thank you for taking the time to write this out.


    • January 29, 2012 12:54 pm

      You’re welcome – thanks for reading. Glad to hear that you’re trying to see all of the Best Picture nominees. Last Friday, we put together our thoughts on all nine of the films in the running. Read them all here.

      -John C.


  28. Kristin permalink
    February 1, 2012 3:21 am

    I feel like I followed the movie pretty well but for the ending. The cosmos scenes ended with what looked like the end of the world but Sean Penn’s scenes ended with a bridge. Your thoughts?

    As an aside, the underwear were a neighbors and was just one of the many rebellious acts when he was struggling with grace vs. nature. And the boy burned his head in a fire that they briefly showed and the ensuing friendship was a sign of grace, IMHO.


    • February 1, 2012 9:48 am

      I think you are right about the stolen nightgown and the boy with the burned head, two elements that many people have been asking about. I have always personally believed that the cosmos scene at the end is meant to be a visual representation of God, and the bridge is a metaphorical reminder that life goes on, even if things are constantly evolving and changing. There is a very circular quality to the film, and lead actress Jessica Chastain has touched on this in a few interviews.

      With that said, others are going to interpret this very differently and I must say that it’s been really interesting reading so many different thoughts on The Tree of Life, even if I haven’t been responding to every comment. Thanks for reading and adding your own feelings on the film.

      -John C.


  29. Mike permalink
    February 5, 2012 12:12 am

    Thank you John C for your insights and observations here. Personally I love a movie that makes you think. 2001 was one of the greatest and I spent a lot of time studying and chewing on that one. This is going to be the same. I have only watched it twice so far and continue to be moved and intrigued. There is a mystery here, deep meaning that is not just spelled out for you, you have to dig for it. This movie deserves a lot of thought and discussion. In a society where speed and efficiency are so important, I’m afraid that this movie is not going to be liked very much. People have lost the ability to be patient. They want the meaning and they want it quick so that they can move on to the next thing. I’m not that different. I have been resisting looking for an article like this for a week since I watched the movie the first time. After seeing it a second time yesterday morning, I gave in and had to look for some explanations of things. I celebrate the mystery of it. It is a film about God and He is indeed mysterious.


    • February 5, 2012 11:57 am

      You’re very welcome. I couldn’t agree with you more that in this day and age, audiences prefer to have things easily laid out instead of having to think about and interpret a movie. Over forty years since it was first released, 2001: A Space Odyssey still challenges viewers, and I truly believe that the lasting impression made by The Tree of Life will be the same.

      -John C.


  30. mac permalink
    February 5, 2012 11:04 pm

    This movie was a waste of time to watch. I do not want to watch a movie that I have to analyze and watch over again to know the meaning. This was the biggest waste of time and the most pointless thing I have ever watched.


    • Patty Nusbaum permalink
      February 10, 2012 12:50 am

      I rented this movie on pay per view while home sick. I was confused and beginning to think I was in a state of feverish hallucination. Luckily my hearing loss came in. handy for once because I would have been even more lost without the subtitles, which have the whispering at least the slightest whiff of context.
      I found myself wrestling with mixed emotions when the film was over, wanting to recommend it to those closest to me, but secretly hoping they would not actually watch it, lest they hate me forever afterward. Reading all the comment on this site has been incredibly helpful and I wish I had done so before ever watching the movie.
      When I watched it a second time today, I did so in the right frame of mind, letting go of
      my impatience and need to have every scene spelled out for me.


  31. celenap permalink
    February 10, 2012 7:25 pm

    It needed an editor. I felt bludgeoned with the obvious, over and over and over and over… the same scene going on and on and on and on and on.
    See…mindless repetition is just annoying.


  32. Nate permalink
    February 18, 2012 4:21 am

    I am a philosopher in a way. Very interested in that type of thing but this movie was a shame. Perhaps I am just not artistically inclined but I found that I kept begging for this movie to end. I was hoping that it would sum up its point instead of asking questions and answering nothing. I also found it kind of offensive, it takes christian ideas, one Bible scripture and then starts to shape into its own meaning, or as some other people said, the directors meaning. Talks about god but not jesus. Most offensive is that it acts as if life is this wonderful thing that nothing else can best where as the afterlife portrayed in this movie is pretty much the same. If there is a heaven, it is much much better than this place, not the same. This is not to say that I don’t appreciate the life that has been given to me and the world that god has created. It is a beautiful world. However, there is scripture that says not to work for food or for money but for our reward in heaven. Does that mean don’t get a job and live your life. No. What it does suggest is that there is greater reward in heaven and we should pursue that even more than what is on this earth. I get this odd feeling while watching this movie that its intent is to worship the earth and then you have people saying that there is a spiritual connection with nature. This movie basically takes a shell shaped like christianity and then tries to morph it so that it is something else. That instead of worshiping the supernatural(God, Jesus and the Holy spirit), we should instead worship the natural(Earth, World of impossibility). This movie is made in a way that it wants you to believe, what else is the purpose of a movie like this? Some people probably watch it for the scenery but the idealogical part of it is persuasive. But then, even though it is made this way for open thinkers, it assumes that bad things happen naturally and that we must just accept it. Bad things do happen to good and bad people. I know that my faith does not protect me from getting cancer or getting run over by a car but throughout the rest of the bible that this movie tosses aside, Jesus heals people, Jesus resurrects people, including himself. He said that people would do greater miracles than he did. Why should we just accept the world as we see it? We should not.
    Another thing, this movie tries to depict god as absent or uncaring which is just plain not the case. Perhaps if we spent less time running around laughing and drenching ourselves with water, then stealing the neighbors underwear and instead spent more time praying, we would hear God. More than that, eventually you can get to the point where you can feel God’s presence. Miracles are possible, with god. I think the people that go on and on about how God couldn’t care for us because such terrible things happen to us usually don’t have a good relationship with him anyway and not enough faith to ask and believe without question that God will give miracles.
    Thirdly, the movie focuses too much on just other peoples relationships. The greatest relationship a person can have is with God. He is the only one we can truly trust. The movie idolizes the relationships of people. In the end, its those relationships that supposedly fight their way through together. God is the only one that will get you to heaven. Not people.
    Another, everything works together in the end and all people will make it to the heavenly beach. I hate to be pessimistic but not every body will be saved. We don’t just get to heaven by thinking happy thoughts.
    At this point, I am sure many of those of you who actually read this to here are asking your selves why this guy keeps going on about God. Did we invite a Christian to this conversation. My answer. I think this is perfectly fair criticism of this poorly devised movie. The movie brought up these ideas and then latched them to christianity and wants to make it seem like its all part of a bigger theme. Well its not. Christianity is not properly symbolized in this movie. It was a mediocre attempt that then went completely south by the end. This is the worst movie I think I have ever seen. When people make movies, I wish they would stick with the things they know, not just take a can labelled with something unknown to them, then fill the inside with whatever kind of BS ideas they have. Its false representation and offensive at that.


    • Kristin permalink
      February 18, 2012 5:26 pm

      I did not see Christianity in the movie either. But the opening Bible verse was Old Testament, not New Testament, So one should not assume that there was a Christian message, nor one of Judaism or Islam, maybe just God.


      • Tiy permalink
        July 20, 2012 7:11 pm

        Movies this profound wouldn’t make it’s main characters Christian and be asking the major existential questions if it wasn’t trying to lend itself towards a particular faith. If it were just challenging the existence of God, or a creator, there are other religions and philosophies that do so without biblical reverence. To dismiss that this movie had Christian themes is dismissing the film in its entirety. Evolution and the Christian God were deliberately tied into the film… It is why the father is how he is and why young jack feels shame and on and on and on.


      • Leelee permalink
        July 20, 2012 8:00 pm

        How wonderful that a movie comes along in today’s climate of so much junk food, to inspire actual thoughtful, intelligent conversation. I can’t think of another film in recent history that has done this. Thank you everyone for your participation here.


    • April 4, 2012 2:51 am

      You probably shouldn’t be watching much of anything if you find this film religiously offensive. Provoking thought and asking questions is *not* offensive. This comment is truly terrifying.


      • Nate permalink
        April 29, 2012 2:47 pm

        Lol. Theres not much positive for me to say about this movie, I must admit. I do enjoy movies and i love movies that bring up good legitimate questions(Like I said, philosophy is one of my favorite studies) but this movie did not simply ask questions. Rather, it inferred an answer. This movie had so many loose ends and unexplained things in it, it just annoyed me. It is really somewhere in the middle between a theory and a question because it makes an incomplete argument and asks questions that are unanswered. If there had been an argument, I might have actually liked the movie but there were only hasty conclusions with little or no support at all. For a person who likes philosophy, that is annoying. You cannot argue for or against an argument that non-existent. Basically, I lost two valuable hours of my life so someone could make an unsupported claim/fantasy. I could have had a better experience watching my 2 year old niece draw a picture for two hours and it would have been the same exact thing. Some people may call this art but I call it lazy. Random images and scenes not even roughly organized into an understandable, let alone enjoyable movie. Then, since the whole movie basically sucked, in order to make any profit, throw Brad Pitt in the mix. That way you can still paste his name and face on the cover and people will still rent/buy it thinking it is a decent movie. After all, Brad Pitt is usually in good movies. Well, not this one.


    • TPR permalink
      July 17, 2012 11:23 pm

      Nate, you really shouldn’t start your comment out with “I am a philosopher…” when it is full of such simple-minded thoughts; it was a huge letdown, as I was expecting to hear some profound thoughts and ideas, and found nothing of the sort.


  33. Francesca permalink
    February 19, 2012 9:58 am

    Exquisitely beautiful film. Each shot is a work of art. Evokes so many memories of life with a baby and toddler and my own childhood. Thank you for this poignant review.


    • February 19, 2012 12:24 pm

      You’re welcome. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: As a writer, I find it fascinating to see so many different opinions and debates going on about this film. But I think you are absolutely right – the way that The Tree of Life evokes memories in the viewer means that it will resonate differently with everyone who watches it. And that is what makes it such a work of art.

      -John C.


  34. antennaguru permalink
    February 19, 2012 6:38 pm

    Reblogged this on Mark W. Ingalls, Antenna Guru and commented:
    The way of all things…
    I’ve watched The Tree of Life a couple ties now. As a ‘movie’ it’s not very entertaining, perhaps, because it’s no fun. As ‘art’ it evokes a genuine emotional response. This review (and most of the following comments) is the best, most thoughtful treatment of the film I have read. Enjoy the read, enjoy the film, too.


    • February 19, 2012 7:42 pm

      Wow – really glad you enjoyed all the comments and I appreciate your kind words on my article. Thanks so much for reading and reblogging!

      -John C.


      • antennaguru permalink
        February 19, 2012 9:14 pm

        Dear John,
        I try hard to put thought into what I do; that is why I appreciate people who actually succeed at it. (;


    • thomas s furlan permalink
      April 24, 2012 8:11 pm

      Wow, so now a movie has to be ‘ fun ‘ to be good, guess that leaves out, Schindlers List, The Deer hunter, American History X, and about a 1,000 other great movies.
      It was brilliant, people who hate this movie are on the wrong path.
      Watching it for the second time now, and one of the few movies I will purchase.


      • Karlowar permalink
        May 16, 2012 9:38 am

        Thomas – did you even read beyond the second sentence of this comment?


      • TPR permalink
        July 17, 2012 11:24 pm

        I actually thought “American History X” was extremely fun, but maybe our definition of the word “fun” differs quite a bit…


  35. Dan Kennedy permalink
    February 20, 2012 6:49 pm

    I really enjoyed this film. I mean, how many movies drag you in like this one. This was the last movie for me to see in evaluating all of the best picture nominees for academy awards. I don’t think it will win but I can see why it is up. I guess I am fortunate in not being deep enough to require full understanding of an I just went on the journey. It wasn’t always comfortable but it was evocative. Kudos to Malick.


  36. February 25, 2012 7:28 pm

    I saw this film at a film club and left before the discussion as I needed time to mull over the emotions swirling inside of me. I found it very moving and meaningful; perhaps because I let everything flow into me and did not attempt to analyze it too much as I watched it.

    For me, the metaphor of the beginning of life on Earth, the extinction of the dinosaurs etc. are metaphors for the lives of Humankind. We are born and through our lives there are changes,are losses and disasters. We change physically and emotionally, we age (if we are fortunate to live so long); then we die and the cycle of life repeats itself.

    The performances by all the actors were incredible. I could not find fault with any of them.

    It is a film that will stay with me for a long time.


  37. Eric Stephens permalink
    February 26, 2012 1:25 am

    Quantum physics postulates that the “river of time” concept is an illusion and that the past, present and future are co-existent. We normally don’t perceive things that way in our waking life but often do when, for example, we’re dreaming. I think this film only makes sense if we consider that Malick is trying his best to present us with such a challenging environment. Also, modern physics deals with more with potentialities than definite realities so it isn’t necessary to know specifically which son died as it could well have been any of them and moreover may also have been a different one for different people. Difficult concepts and not consistent with how we view the universe in our day-to-day lives but nevertheless supported by all the data.


  38. bella permalink
    February 27, 2012 10:55 am

    Absolutely agree with John C. Want just add that the style of telling the story reminds the russian director Andrey Tarkovsky


  39. heidi rictor permalink
    March 3, 2012 2:41 am

    Just a little too abstract for my taste. I liked the cinemantography but wished they had been more clear on many points.


  40. Bill Gallagher permalink
    March 6, 2012 8:48 pm

    A wonderful review – fitting in all respects – thank you for sharing
    – Bill G


  41. Tony Everest permalink
    March 19, 2012 9:25 am

    I don,t remember the last time I felt so moved. At the end of the movie tears started to roll down my face. I played the part over. My inner self felt free. I once again belived. Thank you so much.


  42. Charles permalink
    April 15, 2012 8:26 pm

    I think everyone here can agree that the movie was beautifully executed. The creation scenes coupled with the orchestral music reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey creates a deeply emotional experience… for some. While I did enjoy watching the conflict of Jack’s innocence with the realities of life, the way the that Malick force feeds his own beliefs to us may estrange viewers such as myself. In particular, the overt religious references causes such a conflict with my own philosophical inclinations that I found myself constantly critiquing the film’s message. It is as if a beautiful and spiritual delusion, but a delusion nevertheless, justifies the death of the son as right as good. Malick’s film can only be truly embraced by those who share his own religious and philosophical convictions.


  43. thomas s furlan permalink
    April 24, 2012 9:45 pm

    The youngest boy makes a painting with water colors that the mother seemed upset about, she even destroys the image,can anyone fill me in on that?


    • Joe K permalink
      May 3, 2012 8:18 am

      i thought of the scream by edvard munch…


    • caitie permalink
      July 19, 2012 12:56 am

      i think Jack ruins it by spilling water on it because right after him and his mother seem to get into a fight and he storms out. i think she was trying to fix it and failed. it was another act of Jack’s rebellion.


  44. May 2, 2012 5:05 pm

    Thank you. I think the imagery that you say is a flame is actually a star birth. It looks very much like a star nursery. This would make much more sense than a flame from a philosophical standpoint. 🙂


  45. diotima permalink
    May 7, 2012 1:24 am

    I know this film will haunt me for some time. I’m so glad I came across it. There are a plethora of movies that will never be able to hold a candle to this one. I feel enriched by it.
    I felt the meaning Job had over the whole film was that we can’t help but think every whispered thought and question, but at the same time, who are we to judge God. All the scenes from microscopic to the galactic was to put you in a mindset of awe and who are we to question.
    The scene of the mother who vowed to remain true in the beginning and offered her son back to God in the end was painfully beautiful to me. It put all the suffering into perspective.


  46. Karlowar permalink
    May 16, 2012 9:35 am

    Again – please stop with the ‘I-lost-two-valuable-hours-of-my-life-and-want-them-back’ comments. A person will spend about 1400 hours of their life brushing their teeth. Investing two hours in a challenging movie is certainly worthwhile. And if you didn’t like it, at least put together an informed opinion before expressing it.


  47. Linda permalink
    June 3, 2012 8:37 pm

    I watched it this afternoon, then immediately came to this link to help me think things through. Such a beautiful movie. I appreciate ALL the dialogue above. It made this experience even more meaningful. One scene I found especially gripping was the celebration when Mr. O’Brien left on a trip. How happy/how sad! Not for everyone, but, man, I wish it were! Thank you Mr. Malick.


  48. June 5, 2012 1:39 am

    I just kind of settled with all the loose threads in the different scenes, and really enjoyed the massive stuff being presented to me. I love special movies, even though they just try, because it makes all filmatic expressions different, and gives inspiration for others (and me) to either create or explore new, unique films.

    I really liked the way the movie presented so many different huge themes/messages so simply. Maybe it’s because the big themes in life in fact are very simple? Like not being a harsh father, the fact that parents have a lot but also no control/power, gratefulness, beauty in all humans beings, how tragedies bring humans to and away from God, brotherhood and humbleness, the American dream’s influence on people, marriage, the survival instinct, good and evil, strong forces in nature, Job…

    Nice 🙂


  49. Josephine Neill-Browning permalink
    June 12, 2012 9:52 am

    I would like to make one addition to this excellent review. Yes, the movie does turn on the quote from the book of Job, God’s answer to Job’s questions: “Where were you when I created the foundations of the world. . . . When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted with joy?”

    At the beginning of the movie, the mother says that when she was the child, the nuns taught her that there were two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace. They also said that those who choose the way of grace never come to a bad end. When the three sons are children, the family hears a sermon about the book of Job in which the priest assures the congregation that, like Job, no matter how good a life a person lives, there is no protection from tragedy. The mother experiences this truth. Obviously, she has chosen the way of grace, but she comes to a bad end in that her second-born son dies when he is only 19.

    I see the main theme of the movie as the necessity of acceptance, forgiveness, and love. In the scene on the beach where the family is reunited and the mother says, “I give you [God] my son,” Jack learns the meaning of forgiveness and experiences a transformation from his sterile, meaningless existence, symbolized by the steel and glass of his existence in the city and by the rocks and desert he stumbles through, to the oasis of grace and peace and lost innocence, symbolized by the “living water” he and his family walk through.

    There is no way that we can understand the workings of God. We can only trust in God, who laid the foundations of the world and created all things, This is what Jack and his mother finally learn.


    • Dean G permalink
      July 12, 2012 2:44 am

      The movie shows dinosaurs and the meteor strike that killed them, allowing life as we know it to evolve from the ashes. Not exactly a theory inline with current beliefs held by the folks who think a god of some sort created life. That was the most ridiculous part of the movie, but not the only one.


  50. oco permalink
    July 11, 2012 4:35 pm

    As I released my existing reality to move into Malick’s vision, I kept being slammed back to my reality by the beauty of the actors doing their job, each in their own way and style. Back and forth I careened..Malick, me, Malick, me. The kids were great, but the pro’s were stunningly themselves. One writer said, the actors were only themselves…and I agree, and that’s sometimes what I look for in actors.. I want pizza to taste like pizza. The doorways, the forgiveness of the shot finger, the closeness of the brothers, the stumbling father apologizing for the want of an self-reliant son to be ready, the beauty of a woman bending to give a hug with the glowing pearls above the hidden hint of her breasts. Malick is all over the place with images of guilt and longing, beauty and despair. This is much like the truth that is mine, and that I would wish for everyone in their own way. In this age of spoon-fed answers to all questions, a diamond appears. I hope it made enough money to keep these visions viable in comparison to The Avenger’s.


  51. jane permalink
    July 12, 2012 10:07 pm

    It’s the same way with great artists, who create a few masterpieces, and then have the world moon over a couple of lines and smudges. It really pieces me off when one idiot creates some bulls***, and other idiots find sense and “enlightenment” in it.


    • July 12, 2012 11:29 pm

      That’s a very general and insensitive comment. Art is always subjective and that is often what makes it brilliant. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I find it very interesting to read all of these different thoughts on the film, but it’s not really fair to insult people who like different things…

      -John C.


      • jane permalink
        July 13, 2012 10:30 pm

        I can’t be certain on this, but I believe that my insensitive comment applied to you, and that’s why you replied. Like I said, it’s just a guess, nothing more. Look, I’m sorry about the language being a bit rough, but it just makes perfect sense to me. I couldn’t not say it.


      • TPR permalink
        July 17, 2012 11:27 pm

        What are you even talking about?


  52. David Bartholomew permalink
    July 14, 2012 10:41 pm

    I’ve read a lot of comments about this movie here in this blog, looking for clarity and an explanation of what I just watched. But the bottom line for me is, I was not entertained. The movie for me was a complete failure and a waste of time. I didn’t miss the meaning of this movie because I’m dim-witted, the movie missed me because it was a smoky, altogether difuse portrayal of poorly blown wind.


  53. oco permalink
    July 16, 2012 11:37 am

    It might be “p***es”, but “pieces” is an interesting take on a heartfelt condition. I like the way you think, and I like the banter here… spicy language makes for hot reading with tempers flaring…for this movie being being such a dud (in some folks opinions), it certainly has got some mileage in the blog. How come no Prometheus comments?


  54. Tiy permalink
    July 20, 2012 2:11 pm

    LOVED this film and would recommend it to anyone I know who has an open heart and mind. There is only one element of the film I wrestle with- which are the ending sequences… I think it is supposed to be heaven BUT Jack isn’t dead so far as we know, so why is he there? I thought maybe he kills himself because we see him follow young Jack through the desert who keeps saying “jump.” Plus there are a lot of underwater images throughout the movie and the bridge scene… This explanation initially satisfied me because it explains why most of the movie is told through Jack’s perspective- it’s life/his life flashing before his eyes—HOWEVER this explanation doesn’t fit the majority of the themes… On the one hand, the film is validating Grace, specifically via Christianity, which means Jack wouldn’t go to heaven after suicide. (and if you say Christianity is not a theme- you are mistaken.) On the other hand, the movie is attempting to validate creation/nature in which then there would be no heaven (but maybe reincarnation because it fits with the cycle/circular theme). I believe that both can and do co-exist. Most likely there are loop-holes/loose screws in the story on purpose- to invoke original thoughts and opinions.

    Overall, I accept that the main theme of the movie is as the Grandmother says in the very beginning, “life goes on.” Several scenes support this ie: in church it is preached that all things are mortal- then there is the sun as a white dwarf….both are symbolic of how all things in nature must expire. Nature is proof of this, and religion/God is an attempt to explain why. Which brings me to ask the same question as young Jack: “What are we to You?”


    • Kristin permalink
      July 20, 2012 3:04 pm

      Why are you certain that Christianity is the theme, versus God? The bible quotes are all Old Testament.


      • Tiy permalink
        July 20, 2012 6:59 pm

        Religion, not just God, was unquestionably a theme of the movie. There are only two religions that hold the old testament as sacred- Judaism and Christianity… The characters were not Jewish.

        I want to make it clear that I think the movie was making a much more profound statement about God and spirituality outside of organized religion- but I also think that all elements should be accounted for and Christianity was one of these elements.


  55. Ted permalink
    July 24, 2012 5:22 am

    As a Humanist, I naturally watch films with such powerful religious overtones from a different place than many of the other readers here. However I am certainly ‘on board’ with the concept of the duality in the nature of our human existence.

    My personal reality, however allows that we humans are here on this planet, not through the grace of god, but rather though our own human grace, and also in no small part through the amazing set of both highly chaotic and ordered events that led to our evolution as a species on this big blue marble. (as Carl Sagan called the planet earth)

    In other words, when I watch a movie as complex, facinating and in many ways as beautifully wrought as I found ‘The Tree of life’, I still don’t see any god, nor any heaven or hell, but I certainly do see an amazing universe – one far too vast to have been ‘created’, but instead, like all of existence, an ever evolving wave that we can marvel at, and rejoice to be a very small part of.

    Yet the power of rejoicing should always be tempered with the certain knowlegde that each of our lives turns on a dime. Lives will continue to be ripped asunder – or uplifted – by events outside our individual control. It is my belief that it is this random nature of our existence which has led so many people to believe so strongly in god. One never knows precisely what is going to happen next, and since this can be both terrifying and liberating, many choose to chalk it up to the hand of god working his mysterious wonders. Good, bad or indifferent.

    Nevertheless, I found the Tree of Life to be a great way to spend 2 hours and 30 minutes, and I found this blog to be a terrific way to help me get a handle on what I had just watched. I freely admit that I was confused about some of the details, and found the comments of several people here to be very helpful. My gratitude to John C. at ‘one movie five reviews’, and to everyone else who has posted here.

    My thanks also go to Terrance Malik, for making this film. I was certainly engrossed and enchanted by his film, and his storytelling. It was chock ful of images that I found compelling, actors who crafted some truely wonderful performances, and a thought provoking story that was told with panache and originality. Well done!


    • Mike permalink
      August 6, 2012 3:49 pm

      I grabbed a little insight on ALL of your responses. Since this movie is airing frequently on cable now I muse there will be more action on the film to come in the reply section.Michelle the boy was a neighbor of the THREE brothers,,, don’t u remember them sifting thru the ashes of the burnt boys house? And to the other question there were never a fourth brother who died because the relative while they were grieving mentioned ” well, u still have to others to watch out for… it just showed ( along with another one of their friends drowning) of the loses of innocence in a quaint town and how these boys would now learn of tragedies and death. The youngest and articulate brother was assumed killed in action. They sent the news too many by telegraph back then and the dates of him being 19 would add up to the Vietnam era


      • Michelle Greenfield permalink
        September 14, 2012 5:18 am

        Hey Mike, Why do u think that the mother was briefly shown in the yard/forest in a glass coffin like box? This seemed a bit like a Snow White reference to me. What do u (or anyone) think this was supposed to mean?


  56. Tabetha Wikoff permalink
    August 15, 2012 2:26 pm

    Excellent post, i for sure enjoy the site, keep on it.


    • August 15, 2012 9:28 pm

      Thanks so much for your encouraging words on my article! We’re glad that you enjoy the website.

      -John C.


  57. dejavous permalink
    September 2, 2012 1:15 pm

    I dont know what I just finished watching. Its nothing like Ive ever experienced before. I will confess I didnt understand it all and at times it overwhelmed me. I was scared at times ; in awe almost ; I dont know if this is what is meant by spiritual.

    There was too much to take in. A lot of different things were happenning at the same time and I felt like the director was freely toying with my heart strings.

    I found it quite disturbing also as it seemed to suggest that our entire existence and our lives dont matter at all in the grand scheme of things. We are it seems insignificant. Our lives,our daily struggles, our hopes, our aspirations and everything we know and believe to be important is in reality of absolutely no consequence. Or atleast for me nothing meaningful has happenned in my life that is even worthy of note or will ever be worthy of note ; for that matter.

    Maybe ill watch it again to grasp the finer details of this visual extravaganza but i doubt it ; it will trouble me greatly. I am already disturbed by this film and to be honest it has me deeply depressed.
    Maybe I lack faith. I dont believe in God enough but the powerful and deadly force in nature I know to be omni potent.
    We have only to look at ourselves and the society around us to know for sure how we are so not living our lives the way it is meant to be lived.

    All in all this is not a light entertainment drama film. Be prepared to do a little battle with yourself and rest assured it will leave a lasting impression on you.

    You wont forget this film for a LONG time.


  58. Jane Jenn permalink
    September 3, 2012 9:49 am

    I too was very moved by this movie.
    May I offer another view…that all things – tragic, trivial and joyous – can be seen as part of a profound whole that is awe-inspiring and ultimately beautiful. The sadness and grief experienced by the characters and the audience can open our hearts to an exquisite realization of love …the “way of Grace” referred to by the mother early in the film. If there is a message here, for me, it’s to be open to loving (think of the scene where the mother gives a sip of coffee from her thermos to a prisoner) at every moment. As the mother character says, “the way to be happy is to love”.


  59. Kevin harris permalink
    September 22, 2012 8:09 pm

    Great movie, still not sure which brother died?


  60. Diane permalink
    October 16, 2012 12:37 pm

    I really tried to watch this film, but couldn’t get into it. Did not understand where they were going. I gave it 45 minutes of my time and then turned it off. What was over five minutes of music and all strange images on the screen and no talking. Did the son hang himself from the tree? Wasn’t quite clear. It was never said. Would not recommend this film.


  61. Celtic Priest permalink
    November 1, 2012 7:57 pm

    The music alone spoke loudly to me. Ordained later in life after completing graduate study at seminary, I experience a deep emotional “thrill” whenever I hear various types of church music. The imagery is superb, but the musical scores are awesome. The organ music in particular “lured me in”.


    • Sara V permalink
      December 29, 2012 11:38 pm

      The explanation of images as thoughts coming to our memories is perfect, this movie is amazing. I will watch it again! I do not think that the last scene is “heaven” I rather like to think is an epiphany as Jack has been thinking about his middle brother throughout all the day since that day might have been the anniversary of his brothers dead.


  62. Sara V permalink
    December 30, 2012 12:11 am

    I found the attic scene to be very interesting, from my own experience this seams like the nightmares we had when we were young and that we always remember. I had my own fears when I was a child of the first floor of my house at night and I always had nightmares of my bed falling down to the first floor at night. Reading some reviews now I’m not quite sure if the son who died “the musician” and the one who tells Jack that he trusts him is the middle brother or the youngest one? I thought he was the middle brother due to their heights but I guess that is not a factual based thought.

    The creation scenes were great, I love to read and watch documentaries about outer space so I easily relate to these scenes. I also think that there are a lot of scenes with water like the final scene, I think this can relate to the theory that we come from the sea and the water is so important for the life beginning, I found profound to see all of them aside from the sea getting to deep answers, when in the past we were just unicelular living creatures!


  63. Jack Morley permalink
    December 31, 2012 10:03 pm

    Reading through the vast spectrum of interpretations of the film finally did open the window in my mind in order to fully appreciate the meaning and the seemingly ephemeral theme to all the pieces of the cinematography. Transfering all of the thoughts, assumptions, impulses into a verbal construct was all very impossible for me until reading through each of these comments. The movie was a visual wonderment and the black and white filming provided a personal element to myself as many of the years of my youth were depicted through that particular lens. Many individuals here have lent some very insightful impressions on a film that was both intriguing and sometimes difficult to harness. Thanks.


  64. Dan permalink
    January 13, 2013 7:40 pm

    what a pretentious load of shit


  65. Ceri Westcott permalink
    March 2, 2013 9:33 am

    I think it`s about 9/11


  66. FRANCIS SWARTZ permalink
    April 29, 2013 3:11 pm



  67. Stanley in your dreams permalink
    September 16, 2013 12:06 am

    If they did not want the film to be branded as pretentious drivel, why did they include the dinosaurs? Yes, dinosaurs. The cinematography was magnificent. Great cinematography, plus a great story, equals a movie.


  68. Jesse123123 permalink
    February 17, 2014 9:14 pm

    it is the most ridiculous movie, why does everything have to be a cross to be nature and spirit since no human understands either, way to complicated to get one point across boy loses brother tries to be like mother and hates father


  69. jd linklater permalink
    February 23, 2015 10:43 am

    I’ve only just got around to watching The Tree Of Life on DVD and like a lot of other posters I found a few scenes a little incomprehensible. Right from the outset I thought that the Sean Penn character was indeed the eldest of the three brothers but I thought it was he who had died and that the early scenes were a depiction of the existence he maybe would have had if had he survived, with all the modern towers of glass as a sharp contrast to the towering trees of his innocent childhood.

    On the whole I found the scenes of conflict in the home were a little too close to my own childhood for comfort and really spoiled my enjoyment of the film. The overbearing father, the more or less compliant mother despite her loving nature, the violent scene at the dinner table, the attempt to toughen up the eldest boy with mock fighting, even the thought of kicking away the carjack while the father was working under the car. All far too close to home for me.

    I watched the film with my wife who immediately said she found it very confusing and wouldn’t want to sit through it again. I on the other hand will definitely rewatch it at some future date. Overall I found it a unique film experience and I do like a film that leaves me with unanswered questions. Thanks to John C. for starting this column and to all the other contributors who have made for an exhilarating discussion.


    • February 23, 2015 5:14 pm

      Yes, the beauty of this film is how everyone can find something different to relate to in the images. Glad I could help with your appreciation of the experience, and thank you for keeping the conversation going!

      -John Corrado


  70. jd linklater permalink
    February 23, 2015 7:06 pm

    Hi John, I only posted on the off chance the conversation was still running as it’s more than a year since the last post. I haven’t stopped thinking about this film since I watched it, I was brought up in the early 50s so a lot of the conventions and attitudes expressed in the film ring very true for me. There are only 5 years or so between Terrence Malik and myself agewise so I guess our upbringings were similar in nature and from reading more about it the film does partly recall his own upbringing in Waco. Maybe that’s why I found it so affecting, it made me recall a lot of unpleasant times with my stepdad. Childhood wasn’t a good time for me, on reflection I guess I felt a little like Job. Strange how watching a film can bring all that stuff back after more than 50 years, and a shame that those recollections came to the fore while I was watching. Took my mind away from the film completely, so I will definitely be watching it again now I have a little more understanding of what to expect.

    I’ve watched some of Malik’s earlier films…..Badlands, Days Of Heaven and The Thin Red Line and a constant in all three is the cinematography which is absolutely breathtaking. I don’t think there has ever been another war movie like The Thin Red Line. The Tree Of Life certainly maintains his usual high standard, the film is visually stunning. But I echo the sentiments of a couple of other posters regarding the sound quality which I found poor at important moments in the story but there is an onscreen note at the start to play it loud. I still think I’ll run it with subtitles next time which is no problem to me, I watch a lot of foreign language films from time to time and I don’t find subtitles obtrusive.

    Good to hear back from you.
    Jake Linklater


  71. AliciaRae permalink
    December 15, 2015 9:09 am

    This is a nice review of a beautiful film. The Tree Of Life has shaped my spirituality more than any religious service, reading, or spiritual discipline ever has.


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